For the better part of two years, she didn’t speak to me. When I saw her at church or downtown, she pretended not to see me. She skipped the line to shake my hand after worship.
I suppose I’m normal in that I hate conflict – I loathe it with the fire of a thousand suns. Yet, I knew I needed to do something. I tried to reach out to her by brightly saying “hello” when I would see her; then, by calling and leaving her messages to call me back. She responded with more silence – for months and months and months – until one day she the phone rang and it was her.
“You ignored me,” she said. I asked her when and she said that one day, shortly after I arrived at that church, I had walked up to a group of people where she was standing. “You said ‘hello’ to everyone in that circle of people except me.”
I remembered the day she was talking about. It had been a beautiful, warm fall day. I saw the group standing outside as I was on my way into the church from the parsonage. A friend of mine from home was visiting and I wanted to introduce her to the group – so as we walked over I was going over everyone’s names in my head. I remember being proud of myself because I could remember each name. When we got to the group I introduced her to each person by name…or so I had thought. In my nervousness I forgot her, or maybe because I had been practicing all the names in my head I thought I introduced her but I didn’t – and anyway, in the end, I had apparently overlooked this lady. And she had never forgotten it.
I did the only thing there was to do – I apologized to her. I admitted I can be so scatter-brained sometimes and to please forgive me. I was sorry I had hurt her, so deeply sorry. (Even though to tell you the truth – inside I was feeling hurt and angry, too – because of getting the silent treatment for so very long.) But I said, “I’m sorry”. And She said, “I forgive you.”
Saint Matthew writes in the Gospel today about how we as Christian people are to deal with conflict. In fact, in our own church constitution and in the constitution of the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it has this as our method for dealing with any conflict in the church. First, you talk face to face. Then, if it isn’t worked out, you talk about it in the presence of one or two others, and try again. Then, finally, in the presence of the church. Now keep in mind that “the church” here was often groups of people who met in homes, so it wasn’t like bringing it up at a huge congregational meeting – rather it was like discussing it with a living room full of people and trying to work it out.
What’s interesting is that in the New Revised Standard Version, verse 17 reads, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Often when we hear that we might think the scripture is saying it’s time to cast that person out, put them outside the community – but then we stop and remember how Jesus treated the outsiders, the tax collectors, that Saint Matthew himself was a tax collector – and we remember that Jesus was always, always, always still trying to draw everyone into community over and over again. That’s why I like how this version of scripture puts verse 17, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”
So we understand this scripture not so much as a quick and easy recipe for conflict resolution – but an unending process. It’s like when we soon come to the text about when Jesus is asked how many times are we expected to forgive and he says seventy times seven. He wasn’t telling them to do some mental math and then forgive others exactly 490 times. Rather, those numbers signified an infinite amount – that’s the way to forgive. And in turn, when we look to heal hurting relationships we keep trying.
This is never to say that an abusive relationship should be allowed to continue. There has to be mutual love, mutual forgiveness, mutual humility, mutual grace. Sometimes that never comes and we must entrust that person to God and move on.
But sometimes reconciliation happens – even in the most surprising ways. Even when we never thought it could. By God’s grace.
Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on the older brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore.” The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”
The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job.
The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge — a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work — handrails and all — and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.
Do you have a relationship that you think can never heal? Has so much time and hurt happened that it is just impossible for things to mend? Maybe you have no idea what to do anymore. Don’t give up. Because you never know what God can do. And because there is always something you can do, something healing.
My apology to the woman from my church was either too little or too late because our relationship didn’t improve. We had said the I’m sorry’s and the I forgive you’s – but something had been damaged permanently it seemed. Maybe I continued to be scatter-brained and forgot something else. Maybe she just realized she wanted a different pastor. Anyway, she slowly drifted away and began to worship elsewhere. I moved away…and nearly fifteen years have passed since I last saw her.
But I still think about her. I think about how she clung to her hurt, and I did, too. I think about what I might have said or done differently. I may never see her again in this life. I may not ever be able to have understanding about why we were like oil and water – but I can pray for her – and I do. I pray for her joy, for her family, that her life is good and peaceful. And that brings a healing of its’ own.
So there is something we can do when relationships seem broken beyond fixing – we can pray for that person. And it is quite something the peace that can bring.
God doesn’t call us to be best of friends with everyone – God made us too unique for that to be possible all the time. But God did create us to seek peace, to work toward understanding, to, as Paul says in Romans, “love other people as well as you do yourself.”
Let’s do that with our words. Let’s do that with our actions. Let’s do that with our prayers. In Jesus’ name.